How Politics Can Make You Sick

Stress levels are high and some people actually feel ill

Credit: Dea / M. Borchi/Getty Images

JJust as an official impeachment inquiry of President Trump begins, a new study finds 38% of Americans were already stressed out by politics, with 11.5% saying they’re so stressed it’s making them physically ill, even if only a little. The politically induced stress is rising, other research shows, and the effects are more prevalent among people who lean left than those on the other side of the aisle.

The study involved 800 respondents from a YouGov panel of 1.8 million U.S. residents representative of the population at large. A 32-question survey, conducted in March of 2017 and reported today in the journal PLOS One, asked about physical and mental health, and how people perceive politics as the source of any problems they reported. Among the findings:

  • 31.8% agreed or strongly agreed that exposure to media promoting views contrary to their own beliefs “drove me crazy.”
  • 29.3% said they lost their temper as a result of politics.
  • 21.4% said politics fatigued them.
  • 18.3% lost sleep due to politics.
  • 4.1% said politics caused them to become suicidal.

“Politics is really negatively affecting a lot of people’s lives, or at least, they’re perceiving that politics is really negatively affecting their lives in deep and meaningful ways,” says study leader Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Whether people are in fact falling physically ill due to politics is not clear, but mental stress is known to have physical effects. When the mind is stressed, it triggers the release of hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline that can, if the stress becomes chronic, raise blood pressure, fuel headaches, affect sleep, and elevate the risk of heart disease and diabetes. (Among the simple steps you can take to reduce stress: breathe deeply, or go for a walk.)

Lean to the left, feel more stress

The study did not put formal numbers to the differences between left- and right-leaning individuals, but Smith did some back-of-the-envelope calculations for Elemental, based on the data and survey questions about such things as partisanship, ideology, and support for President Trump.

Roughly 20% of liberals, 11% of moderates, and zero conservatives agreed or strongly agreed that politics had affected their physical health, Smith says. On whether exposure to media outlets promoting views contrary to personal beliefs had driven them crazy, 36% of liberals agreed, as did 26% of moderates, and 33% of conservatives.

More generally, Smith and colleagues conclude that “Democrats, self-identified liberals, those who are socially and economically liberal, and people who disapprove of President Donald Trump are, across the board, more likely to report negative health impacts from politics.”

Also, people who frequently discuss politics or report being more involved in politics are more likely to identify with all the negative outcomes in the survey. Other groups tending to be more affected in negative ways: younger people, the unemployed, and people deemed by the questions to be disagreeable or less emotionally stable.

“Politics is really negatively affecting a lot of people’s lives, or at least, they’re perceiving that politics is really negatively affecting their lives in deep and meaningful ways.”

One limitation to the study, as with much psychological research: Self-reporting isn’t always accurate. Also, since this study is “the first to look comprehensively at the physical and emotional costs of paying attention to and participating in political discourse,” as the researchers put it, there is no comparative historical data to indicate if the current self-perceptions are ebbing, flowing, or peaking.

“If we did a similar analysis when Obama was president would we have found similar results, but the people most likely to report these sorts of costs being on the political right rather than the political left? Maybe,” Smith says. “Is what we found a more a product of an unusual and highly polarized time with a polarizing president? Maybe that, too. We just don’t know.”

Higher anxiety

Other surveys find that stress related to the growing left-right gap in American politics is increasing. Political polarization — party-related divisions on topics such as government, race, immigration, national security, and environmental protection — widened to unprecedented levels during the Obama administration, and the gap has grown wider under President Trump, according to 2017 data from the Pew Research Center.

In a Pew survey released last month, 46% of people say they’re “worn out by how many political posts and discussions they see” in social media, up from 37% in 2016. The number who find it stressful to talk politics on social media with people they disagree with politically rose from 59% in 2016 to 68% now.

Pew asked similar questions in 2018, but without limiting it to social media conversations. In that survey, 57% of Democrats and people who lean Democratic said talking politics with those on the other side is stressful, up notably from 45% in 2016. Among Republicans and people who lean Republican, the figure was 49%, up just a smidge from 48% in 2016. Liberal Democrats were most likely (63%) to feel stressed by political discussions, up from 36% in 2016.

Other research has indicated that stress related to the current political climate and White House policies is higher for many women, young adults, and members of ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities.

Smith wonders what a future redux of his study might find, should a Democrat win the presidency in 2020. “Do the symptoms stay the same but shift across the ideological spectrum?”

Good question. He doesn’t know the answer. But it is one more thing for all sides to stress about for the next 14 months… presumably.

Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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